Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | New Delhi revisits the lives versus livelihood debate

Chairing a meeting with the chief ministers of states on Saturday to review the 21-day lockdown which officially ends on 14 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sported a mask—the first time since the covid-19 pandemic emerged as the biggest public health crisis for the world as well as India.

At that moment the PM proved the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. In short in his inimitable style, once again he was using optics to convey to the rest of India that defence (self-protection) is still the best offence.

While the optics signalled no dropping of the guard at a personal level, the PM gave enough indications that the initial strategy to contain the spread of covid-19 would be revisited. About three weeks ago in his national address announcing the lockdown, PM Modi had said Jaan Hai Toh Jahaan Hai (only if there is life there will be livelihood); on Saturday he subtly reworded the phrase to say: “Our mantra earlier was jaan hai toh jahaan hai but now it is ‘jaan bhi jahaan bhi (both, lives and livelihood matter equally)." The pivot was unmistakeable. The new strategy rightly recognized that the covid-19 spread had reached a point of inflection. Initially in the trade-off of lives versus livelihood, it made eminent sense to focus on the former. But as the lockdown came into the third week it was clear that labouring along this trade-off risked triggering a devastating economic crisis. In India, given its millions of economically disenfranchised, livelihood is also life. For instance, in rural India, according to the latest Periodic Labour Force Survey, one in two people are self-employed; a term that risks masking their otherwise vulnerable economic status. For them, already under the strain of a prolonged farm distress in tandem with plummeting real wages, the shutdown of the economy is proving to be devastating.

The impending pivot in strategy is then the big headline from the Saturday meeting. What is not clear though is the detail. But one can safely surmise that the unwinding of the lockdown is likely to be staggered and not uniform across the country. Given that the spread of the pandemic has not been uniform with the eastern part of India relatively less impacted, a strategy of “one size fits all" will hardly work.

Further, several states have their own compulsions. Take for example, Punjab. With the rabi harvest poised to commence, a lockdown would prove to be disastrous. Moreover, once the crop is harvested it has to be transported to the markets—at the moment due to the lockdown, trucks are stranded across the country. Logically, therefore, Punjab will have to calibrate the lockdown—which has already been extended by the state government to 30 April—such that it protects lives and, at the same time, ensures that the primary source of livelihood for the state is not jeopardised.

The Saturday conversation also underlined the importance of dialogue in a federal polity. Tall talk of cooperative federalism has been buried at the altar of partisan politics as most political parties have been unsettled with the rise of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led by PM Modi as the central pole of Indian politics. The unprecedented health crisis forced upon India by the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has temporarily unified, with the rare exception, otherwise bitter political rivals.

It is time our politicians put the country ahead of their political ambitions. This is best achieved through an institutional mechanism. For starters, the moribund inter-state council could be revived to ensure a more sustained dialogue. Remember the covid-19 pandemic has forced a new normal upon the country; not only are things not going back to business-as-usual, worse, the fallout from the pandemic is unlikely to unwind in the next year and more. Are our politicians listening?

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

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